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STORM UPROOTS TREES, SNARLS COMMUTES SEVERAL DAYS OF RAIN AHEAD.

Byline: Lisa Mascaro and Lisa M. Sodders Staff Writers

Southern Californians faced grueling commutes, uprooted trees, power outages and threats of flash floods and mudslides as a powerful storm moved into the region Friday, with the downpour expected to last until Tuesday.

In a winter of record-shattering foul weather, rain pounded the area, forcing drivers to navigate flooded freeways and surface streets. The number of collisions jumped by one-third, adding to the congestion everywhere.

``Everyone's going in and out of downtown L.A. Some freeways are going to just always be bad,'' said California Highway Patrol Officer Rebecca Estrada.

The latest storm comes in the wake of last month's deadly deluge, which washed out freeways, triggered a massive mudslide in La Conchita that killed 10 people and caused millions of dollars in damage. Officials continue to keep watch on the rain-soaked coastal Ventura County village, where roughly 150 homes remain vulnerable.

Heavy rain also closed Highway 126 in Ventura County between Fillmore and Piru, and prompted a flood advisory in Los Angeles County, where rivers swelled with runoff. Burbank Boulevard through the Sepulveda Basin was shut down.

In Burbank, heavy rain was blamed for collapsing the roof of a Virgin Megastore, where thousands of dollars in merchandise was destroyed, Burbank fire officials said.

In the Studio City-Toluca Lake area, a giant tree fell about 8 a.m., just missing a house in the 4000 block of North Farmdale Avenue, officials said.

About the same time, firefighters rescued two people trapped in a car by downed power lines in a parking lot in the 11600 block of Ventura Boulevard. No injuries were reported.

Heavy rain, and even hail in some areas, fell most of the day. In the 24 hours ending at 4 p.m. Friday, the storm dumped 0.61 of an inch of rain in downtown Los Angeles. Van Nuys saw 0.81 of an inch, Chatsworth Reservoir had 1.60 inches, Hansen Dam received 2.16 inches and 1.63 inches fell in Saugus.

Because the ground is already saturated from this winter's record rainfall, the National Weather Service warned that floods and mudslides are possible.

``The watersheds right now are at a point where we're saturated,'' hydrologist Jayme Laber said. ``Any additional rain results into direct runoff ... and could potentially lead to some flooding.''

Weather officials said the upper-level system parked off the coast of Northern California was spinning off a series of storms that would continue hitting the region through the weekend.

Another storm coming Sunday into Monday could drop even greater amounts of rainfall, the Weather Service said.

``Some of that stuff on Sunday, Monday could be more intense - one inch an hour in some areas,'' said Laber.

Most of the heaviest rainfall during the day Friday was in Ventura County, with the mountains above Ojai getting more than 4 inches in a 24- hour period, NWS said.

The storm comes after Los Angeles has already broken records since the rainy season began July 1. A massive series of storms after Christmas and into New Year's left Los Angeles with its 15 wettest days on record.

The area has nearly tripled its normal rainfall total to date, with more than 26 inches logged since July 1 at the downtown Civic Center station.

The CHP reminds drivers that it's going to take longer than usual to get around in the rain.

Motorists can expect to double their commute time in the rain, said CHP West Valley spokesman Officer Leland Tang.

He added that the freeways are going to look like rush hour throughout the day.

``It's just pretty much commute traffic all day now.''

A series of factors makes the freeways more crowded in the rain: Drivers know they're supposed to congregate in the center lanes, avoiding the outside lanes that fill with water. Plus, drivers go slower in the rain, as they should, and leave greater stopping distance between the car in front of them.

Tang added that with cars able to hydroplane at 50 mph, ``we really shouldn't see anybody driving the freeways at 60 miles per hour.''

The CHP also reminds that California law now requires motorists to turn on headlights whenever windshield wipers are on. Though not being enforced until July after the six-month grace period, the law carries a $100 fine.

Still, despite the tough drive Friday, the CHP said the freeway problems weren't as bad as they have been, a signal that drivers typically accustomed to sunny Southern California are now getting used to the rain.

They also speculated that some workers started the Presidents Day holiday weekend early and didn't go to work Friday.

According to Estrada, last week the freeways logged 483 incidents during the morning commute with more severe rains, more than twice the amount logged Friday.

``They get used to the rain,'' Estrada said. ``It's not that first rain where they don't know what to do. They're now getting used to the season. They're working with it rather than going against.''

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lisa Mascaro, (818) 713-3761

lisa.mascaro(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, chart

Photo:

(1 -- color) Ian Vogel of Tarzana rides his bike to Fallbrook Mall on Friday in the rain, which is expected to last until Tuesday.

(2) City employee Pete Ruiz examines a toppled oak tree in the front yard of a Toluca Lake home.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer

(3) Burbank firefighters inspect the damage at a Virgin Megastore after a section of the roof caved in during heavy rain Friday.

Gene Blevins/Special to the Daily News

Chart:

RAINFALL TOTALS

SOURCE: National Weather Service
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 19, 2005
Words:940
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